FourFourTwo's Italian expert Richard Whittle on a successful weekend for Rafa Benitez Napoli's new Argentine import.
Gonzalo Higuain has had a rocky start to his career at Napoli in more ways than one. Arriving in pre-season looking slightly sluggish not to say a little overweight after a €45m transfer from Real Madrid, the striker then learned one of life’s great lessons – don’t get off the boat.
In fact, don’t dive off the boat into uncharted waters when there are rocks luring just below the surface. The Argentine grabbed some unwanted headlines when, on a day off last week, he enjoyed some rest and relaxation on a charted cruiser around the holiday island of Capri. But his jolly ended in ER with eight stitches in his chin – the result of colliding face-first with the unseen reef.
Napoli owner Aurelio De Laurentiis needed someone to blame and took his ire out on the mayor and regional president of Capri by threatening to sue for €100,000, angered by the ditsy striker's hour wait in the emergency room for a patch-up.
“It is not as if this is Africa,” moaned De Laurentiis, which brought a withering response from the regional council who claimed the player had thanked the medical staff for their prompt treatment and left the clinic of his own accord.
A somewhat shame-faced Higuain kept a low profile for the rest of the week as Rafa Benitez fretted over his availability for the weekend encounter at Chievo Verona.
In the end the coach need not have worried as his striker took to the pitch at the Stadio Bentegodi wearing no more than a small band-aid over the stitches before setting about tearing the home defence apart.
The final goal in a 4-2 thriller may have sealed the result, but not before the new man had demonstrated a wilingness to take on defenders in physical tussles and also track back to help win possession.
Working right across the frontline he linked up perfectly with Marek Hamsik, Lorenzo Insigne and another new signing from Real, Jose Callejon, who he set up to put the Azzurri back in front 2-1.
When he finally got on the scoresheet to open his account in Italy it was in typically robust yet cavalier fashion. The 25-year-old charged into the area to receive Insigne’s well-weighted chip, win the 50-50 challenge with goalkeeper Christian Puggioni and finish into the empty net.
His goal and overall performance gave an early indication that Edinson Cavani’s departure will not be missed too much. In fact, Napoli are a completely different outfit under Benitez, who has instilled patience in the side where once Walter Mazzarri demanded a frenzy of counter-attacks to take advantage of Cavani’s lightning pace.
By comparison Higuain is more pedestrian but with Hamsik given a free role to roam, Napoli have been transformed into a passing side willing to keep possession until the moment arises to release their captain.
The Italian press were quick to draw similarities between the Slovakian and Steven Gerrard but Benitez was having none of it, maintaining that no one could match his former Liverpool charge for physical dominance and instead conceding that his new skipper had great tactical nous.
Still, Hamsik grabbed his second brace in as many games to give him six overall, the most of any midfielder in Serie A so far. At this rate he should surpass the 15 plus goals Benitez believes he has in him. And if Higuain sustains this form then he is good for 20 goals, which puts two players comfortably ahead of Cavani’s 29 goal-haul last term.
Callejon is already on two and it won't be long before livewire Insigne is celebrating opening his account.
Napoli had lost each of their last three visits to the Flying Donkeys without scoring and, after Hamsik’s opener on 13 minutes, they had a shaky spell at the back. Another Real signing, Raul Albiol, received little in the way of help from Miguel Britos, while the buccaneering Juan Zuniga was caught out of position for the volleyed cross from Perparim Hetemaj that led to Alberto Paloschi's Chievo equaliser.
There was some equally slack defending to allow Paloschi in again just before the break, when the striker held off Christian Maggio to fire in a low shot through the legs of birthday boy Pepe Reina.
However, the second half saw both Gokhan Inler and Valon Behrami provide a steady platform in front of the back four to keep Chievo a long way from goal on the rare occasions they actually had the ball.
It was dominant display that suggests good things. With Higuain and Hamsik in such explosive form, Napoli can certainly rock the boat for the rest of the title contenders this season.